Schemansky at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
On September 7, 2016, at the age of 92, Norbert Schemansky died.  While Vera Caslavska, the great Czech gymnast, passed away to considerable international press recently, Schemansky left the world with relatively less fanfare.

Schemansky won a gold, a silver and two bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1952 to 1964, an American hero by any standard. But he was a weight lifter, a sport not perceived as popular as gymnastics, as sexy as swimming, or as compelling as the sprints.

In fact, one of America’s greatest weight lifters, along with the likes of Tommy Kono, has lived not only in obscurity, but in relative poverty.

Here’s how Sports Illustrated described the native of Dearborn, Michigan in 1966. “Watched moodily by the one friend who believes in him, Norbert Schemansky works out faithfully in a sleazy underground gym and ponders his years as the world’s greatest weight lifter, an achievement that wins him neither glory nor a job to help support his family.”

According to the same article, Schemansky would commute into Detroit to look for any work: pool lifeguard ($1 an hour), cleaning toilets ($1 an hour), or going on beer sales calls to bars by lifting heavy kegs over his head. In 1948 and 1952, when Schemansky actually had steady work, he was given no favor. In fact, instead of being the pride and joy of his company, he was unceremoniously shown the door. Again, here’s Sports Illustrated:

In 1948, while working in a factory owned by a celebrated sportsman, he needed time off to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics in London. He got the time off—without pay—and won a silver medal. In 1952, while working at the same factory, he requested time to compete in the Olympics at Helsinki. The word went upstairs, and the word came down: “Sure, he can have all the time he wants. Fire him.” Schemansky went anyway, and beat the undefeated Russian world champion, Gregori Novak. He came home with a gold medal, caught a bus from the airport to downtown Dearborn and took a streetcar home. Only a porter at the airport greeted him. “Nice going, Mr. Schemansky,” the porter said.

Schemansky, who was more revered internationally, became a barb in the geopolitical spat across the Iron Curtain. Here’s an example from TASS, the Soviet press organ of the period. “The story of Schemansky, who just recently established a new world record in the snatch with 362 pounds, a full kilogram over the Soviet bogatyr, Yuri Vlasov, reflects the attitude toward man in a capitalistic world.”

Norb Schemansky’s 91st birthday
When Schemansky turned 91 last year, his friends got together and threw him a party in Michigan. As Arthur Chidlovski explained in his blog post of this celebration, “…on the record, the name of Norbert Schemansky appears more often in the history books of the Olympics than the names of such brand name athletes as Gordy Howe or Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, Tom Brady or Tiger Woods. Sports experts and fans definitely appreciate all the dedication and fantastic performance in sports by Norbert Schemansky.”

Here is a compilation of other remembrances of Norbert “Norb” Schemansky.

Vlasov looking downcast whle Zhabotinsky basks in golden glory.
Vlasov looking downcast whle Zhabotinsky basks in golden glory.

“The Strongest Man in the World” – that is the unofficial title given to the gold medalist of the +90kg weight lifting competition, where men lift total weights that measure over half a ton.

In 1964, it came down to two massive men from the Soviet Union – Yury Vlasov and Leonid Zhabotinsky.

Vlasov was the champion, winning gold in Rome and becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular people. According to the book Rome 1960 by David Maraniss, Pravda described him in 1960 as a man not only possessing superior strength, but brains as well. “He is a young man, very cultured, very well read,” Pravda boasted of the engineering student. “Vlasov is the best example of the harmonical physical and mental development of the Soviet athletes.” Vlasov was expected to succeed in Tokyo as well.

Zhabotinsky was a 2-meter, 160-kilogram giant, who had never won head-to-head against Vlasov prior to Tokyo. While Vlasov, who wore glasses during his competitions had a reserved, scholarly look, Zhabotinsky was boisterous, and perceived to be crude in manners, according to this analysis of the weightlifters from 1964.

As American champion Norbert Schemansky faded, it came down to a battle between Vlasov and Zhabotinsky. In the second to final attempt in the clean-and-jerk finals, Zhabotinsky failed his second attempt, and according to this explanation, actually went up to Vlasov and conceded defeat. So when Vlasov made his third attempt, he went for a world record at 217.5 kg thinking that it didn’t matter whether he got it or not, thinking Zhabotinsky had emotionally given up. But since Zhabotinsky had the last attempt, and knew his second “failed” attempt was a ruse, he did his best, broke the world record at 217.5 kg, and won the gold medal.

This is reportedly how Vlasov felt at the time: “When Vlasov realized that he had been the victim of a dishonest trick, he was furious. ‘I was choked